Relationships Between Parents of Children with Disabilities

Raising a child can have profound effects on marriages and relationships between parents. For parents of a disabled child, the effects may be heightened because the child’s care needs can introduce unique challenges into the romantic partnership. 

This is not to say that these relationships are doomed to fail. Many parents of children with disabilities report happy relationships and some noted that their parenting experiences actually strengthened their bonds with one another. An improved understanding of the expected challenges that come with raising a disabled child may help parents maintain and improve their relationships.

Relationship quality varies widely

Living with or raising a child with a disability can have both positive and negative effects on immediate and extended family members. “On the positive side, it can broaden horizons, increase family members’ awareness of their inner strength, enhance family cohesion, and encourage connections to community groups,” however “surprisingly little is known about the ripple effects of child disability on the family. Population-based research, particularly demographic or economic outcomes, is scant.” Existing research indicates that having a child with a serious health condition increases the likelihood that their parents will get divorced or live separately.

Even though our knowledge about the relationship quality of parents of disabled children is still fairly limited, researchers have been investigating the topic since the 1950s. A research study from 2011 synthesized these studies into a new paper and added the results of their own research; this is called a meta-analysis. 

This meta-analysis emphasized that the impacts of raising a child with a disability are often mixed. The mother of a son with fragile X syndrome said: “there have been times when it has been a real strain on the marriage. But overall I think it’s made me a better person. And it has made my husband and I a stronger couple.”

Overall, it is difficult to assess how a child’s disability can impact their parents’ marriage because these relationships are complex and multi-faceted, but we will focus on a few of the following factors: the nature of the child’s diagnosis, age, number of children in the family, available coping strategies for the parents, and some tips from professionals.

The nature of a child’s diagnosis

Certain childhood disabilities may lead to more parental stress than others and these varying stress levels can impact their relationships. Prior research has demonstrated that parents of children with physical conditions such as cerebral palsy (CP) or congenital heart disease had a higher rate of divorce than parents of children with intellectual disabilities. Additionally, there is evidence that parents of children with Down syndrome tend to have higher-quality marriages than parents of children with other types of developmental disabilities.

The child’s age

Most research on marital quality has focused on parents of young children with developmental disabilities. Less is known about how these relationships may evolve as the child ages, but research suggests that the type and extent of challenges that these parents face fluctuates over time. Certain transitions – such as the start of puberty or the transition out of K-12 schooling and into adulthood – can be especially stressful. Parents may begin to struggle more in their relationships as their child enters the teenage years.

Number of children 

Because some developmental disabilities are genetic, parents may have multiple children with disabilities. Research has shown that this can contribute to chronic stress, put them at greater risk for negative spousal interactions, and impact physiological health, especially in situations where parents have reduced resources.

Type of coping strategies

Although the aforementioned variables may be out of parents’ control, this is an area in which parents may be able to make adjustments using several types of coping strategies. Examples include:

  • Problem-focused coping (i.e. attempts to alter the stressor)
  • Positive reappraisal coping (i.e. reframing the event in a more positive light)

Parents who use the aforementioned strategies reported more positive outcomes than those who utilized escape-avoidance coping; those parents reported to experience greater marital strife. It is possible that if parents are making a conscious effort to alter coping strategies, that it may improve their relationship with their partner.

The role of research in shaping clinical practice

In counseling parents of children with disabilities, clinicians should reassure them that many marriages like theirs not only survive, but thrive. However, they should also explain relevant risk factors for relationship difficulties, and discuss healthy coping mechanisms and strategies. 

The most effective version of couples therapy is one that is tailored specifically to challenges faced by parents of disabled children. “For instance, parents should be guided in identifying strategies to enhance their marital relationship, such as learning how to communicate, provide support to each other, and carve out private couple time amidst their daily caregiving demands and stressors.”(2)

Improvements in parents’ happiness could also translate to better parenting behaviors, thereby also improving the wellbeing of children with disabilities.

Tips for parents of children with disabilities

Dr. Laura Marshak, a professor at Indiana University and author of “Married with Special Needs Children: A Couples’ Guide to Keeping Connected,” provides some useful advice. Marshak recommends that parents:

  • work to embrace and respect their differences
  • be proactive in addressing resentments
  • carve out time for romance/dates whenever possible
  • and try to really appreciate each other’s efforts 

She also advises parents to spend 20-30 minutes a day connecting with each other, without talking about their children. She notes that this can help parents stay focused on what they love about each other, rather than focusing solely on their roles as caregivers.

To learn more about Marshak’s advice, you can read her full interview here

About ABC Law Centers

ABC Law Centers is a law firm that works exclusively on birth injury cases. A “birth injury” is any type of harm to a baby that occurs just before, during, or after birth. While some children with birth injuries make a complete recovery, others develop lifelong disabilities such as cerebral palsy and epilepsy. Our attorneys work with families of all types – from happy couples for whom the birth of a disabled child has brought them together, to couples in the midst of divorce proceedings – but at the center of all the families we work with is a disabled child who deserves access to lifelong care.Settlements from birth injury cases can cover the costs of lifelong treatment, care, and other crucial resources. 

If you believe you may have a birth injury case for your child, please contact us today to learn more. We are happy to talk to you free of any obligation or charge. Clients pay nothing throughout the entire legal process unless we win.

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  1. Reichman, N. E., Corman, H., & Noonan, K. (2008). Impact of child disability on the family. Maternal and child health journal, 12(6), 679-683.
  2. Hartley, S. L., Seltzer, M. M., Barker, E. T., & Greenberg, J. S. (2011). Marital quality and families of children with developmental disabilities. In International review of research in developmental disabilities (Vol. 41, pp. 1-29). Academic Press. 
  3. Joesch, J. M., & Smith, K. R. (1997). Children’s health and their mothers’ risk of divorce or separation. Social Biology, 44(3-4), 159-169.
  4. Orsmond, G. I., Lin, L. Y., & Seltzer, M. M. (2007). Mothers of adolescents and adults with autism: Parenting multiple children with disabilities. Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, 45(4), 257-270.
  5. Williams, M.-J. (2014). How to take care of your marriage when you have a child with special needs.